When are SMEs most receptive to requests to improve their sustainability and compliance practices?

Small and medium enterprises (SMEs) make a significant contribution to the economy, but also to global pollution levels, as they often lag behind in the uptake of environmental sustainability and business compliance practices.

The Environment Protection Authority (EPA) Victoria and Sustainability Victoria found that getting small and medium businesses to engage with their environmental programs was a challenge. Businesses either weren’t interested in taking part or weren’t ready and willing to make changes to their working practices.

To help inform future design of environmental sustainability and compliance programs and maximise the chances of program success, we explored the conditions that would make businesses more receptive to change.

The challenge:
Influence SMEs to improve compliance
Environment Protection Authority (Vic) and Sustainability Victoria

What did we do?

We undertook a pilot study, interviewing a sample of government program managers and industry association representatives from a range of industries facing challenges in terms of sustainability and compliance practices.

These interviews aimed to explore the drivers and barriers that influence when SMEs are most receptive to information about environmentally sustainable practices, how ‘business as usual’ practices might impact on readiness to change and provide insights to guide the delivery of future environmental and compliance programs.

What did we learn?

Some of the key considerations that positively influence SME engagement included the provision of tangible case studies, the use of intermediaries and experts, the offer of regulatory relief and clarity, the threat of inspections and detection, collaborative approaches to change and the ‘visibility’ of business practices.

However, one consideration that challenged the study’s formative assumptions was that sudden disruptions to SMEs’ organisational routines and decision-making would present a strategic opportunity to instigate change.

Based on the experiences of many interviewees, however, the opposite was true, as change was more likely to take place against a background of ongoing relationship building.


Our insights can help regulators and environmental organisations work with SMEs to design programs which can be delivered when businesses are most open and ready to change.

This approach can help to maximise the chances of success and help businesses move towards more environmentally sustainable and compliant business practices.

*Findings from this research were published in 2016: Redmond, J., Wolfram Cox, J., Curtis, J., Kirk-Brown, A., & Walker, B. (2016). Beyond business as usual: how (and why) the habit discontinuity hypothesis can inform SME engagement in environmental sustainability practices. Australasian Journal of Environmental Management, 1-17.

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